The Rev. Samuel Esposito grew up cooking in his grandmother Jennie's house in Ellwood City, Lawrence County, and for most of his adult life as a priest he has had to bach it in the kitchen. He knows how to work a bit of heaven into a pound of chicken cutlets or simmering pot of spaghetti sauce. His reputation as one of the Pittsburgh Diocese's best cooks is such that for several years now, parishioners have auctioned his homemade meals -- cooked and served on site -- at various fundraisers for as much as $2,500, serving as many as 16 people.
Last Saturday, for example, Father Esposito spent the evening whipping up a gourmet dinner that Laura and Michael Rubino of Monaca successfully bid on at last year's Red Carpet Gala at Quigley Catholic High School in Baden. Featured on the seasonal menu for 11 was a creamy Walnut and Mushroom Risotto, followed by Fruited Pork Tenderloin slow-roasted with dried apricots and raisins, savory Baked Greens and Caesar Salad. For dessert, there was a homemade Crostata filled with apples, figs and cranberries. Once plated, it enveloped the tiny kitchen in the heady aroma of baked fall fruit.
"I cook seasonally, with what God gives me," the long-time priest explains. The philosophy makes eating an adventure because, as he puts it, "it's never the same thing twice."
When members of The Little Sisters of the Poor's advisory board decided, then, that it might be fun to build its annual fundraiser around some sort of food event, Father Esposito's name was among those that came up as part of a small fraternity of foodies in the diocese that loved to cook for family and friends.
A few years back, the charity's Cleveland home threw a gala for which local priests did some of the cooking. It proved a smashing success. The Sisters decided to try it here.
Talk about being right on the money. Tickets have been flying out the door for "A Heavenly Feast" on Oct. 25, an evening of fine food and wines at The Cardinals' Great Hall at St. Paul Seminary in East Carnegie.
Event chair Mary Lou McLaughlin says, "Everyone is so excited," and none more so than the seven priests who joined Father Esposito in sharing recipes for the dinner with Common Plea Catering, which will do the bulk of the cooking led by owner John Barsotti.
So many priests wanted to take part in the event that the board already has enough cooks lined up for a future fundraiser. "It just sort of took on a life of its own," says Mrs. McLaughlin with a laugh.
Organizers hope to sell 350 tickets by Oct. 11, raising more than $250,000 for the Little Sisters, who this year celebrate their 140th year of service. The group's Brighton Heights nursing home in March was named one of the country's best by U.S. News and World Report. The sisters have cared for more than 12,000 elderly poor residents in Pittsburgh since opening their first residence on Eighth Street in 1872.
Hosted by WQED's Michael Bartley, the dinner will include music by the Duquesne Jazz Ensemble and an auction of several high-tickets items, including a private dinner for eight in the Phipps Conservatory garden, trips to Scottsdale, Ariz., and New York City (to see "The Colbert Report") and a wine tasting for 10 with Father John Sawicki.
The Little Sisters also will honor advisory board chair James F. Will for his many years of service with the first-ever Saint Jeanne Jugan Medal, the highest recognition ever bestowed by the group.
While finding cooks and recipes was easy, adapting recipes originally meant for a family of six or eight to ones that could feed an army was a bit more challenging. After narrowing their submissions to a final best-sounding dozen -- no simple task in itself, as a few of the priests dished up not just one favorite childhood dish but entire menus -- each had to be tested by Common Plea master chef John Brush and his staff in its Strip District kitchen. Among the dishes sampled at the tasting lunch in July were Father Joe Sioli's Baccala in Bianco, or salt cod in white wine sauce, which he learned to cook from his Italian grandmothers, and Father Nicholas Vaskov's Bigos, a sour and savory hunter's stew made with sausage that's the national dish of Poland. It will be served alongside Mizeria, a tangy cold salad of cucumber and red onion.
"We had to make sure each recipe tasted like it was supposed to taste, verbatim," explains Mrs. McLaughlin. Especially since the priests, given the size of the crowd, won't actually cook their dishes but simply finish them at "celebrity chef" serving stations.
Rounding out the menu are seasonal salads, several pasta dishes and Father Esposito's much-loved Chicken Piccata.
Food almost always tastes better when it's served with drinks made with an equal amount of love, so in addition to a selection of fine commercial wines, guests will get to enjoy two homemade spirits: Riesling from Father Bob Miller of St. Benedict the Abbot in Peters and 8 gallons of limoncello that Father Esposito made two months ago; last week he gave tastes of that to his fellow cooks at a get-to-know-you lunch at the Little Sisters' North Side home.
This being Pittsburgh, the event also will boast a cookie table. Parishioners from St. Richard in Richland have promised to wow the crowd with some 2,000 cookies. Also, Father Larry DiNardo is making his famous Ricotta Cheesecake.
Because so many priests spend time in Rome or grew up with Italian mothers and grandmothers, more of them than you might think are excellent cooks. One famous example is Father Leo Patalinghug, director of pastoral field education at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., where Father Esposito studied for the priesthood in the early 1970s. In a steak fajita cook-off on TV's Food Network, the Philippines-born priest won a "throwdown" against iron chef Bobby Flay. (You can watch a re-broadcast of the episode at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 25.)
Watching as Father Esposito prepared last Saturday's meal at the Rubinos with his long-time sous chef Mike Matta, it's obvious that he is in his element in the kitchen. He doesn't miss a beat as he goes from ladling hot broth into a pan of Arborio rice for risotto to putting the finishing touches on a pan of Swiss chard, diced pancetta and shaved pecorino Romano, which he'll bake to just the right mix of crispy and melty.
His first cooking lessons, he recalls, were taken watching over his grandmother's shoulder. Nothing was more revered than family meals, and everyone was expected to pitch in in her basement kitchen.
"As soon as I got home from school, she gave me something to do," he says. Sometimes it was helping to make pizza or sauce; other times he was charged with firing up the pizzelle iron to make dozens and dozens of the anise-flavored Italian cookies, which he quickly learned to time to one "Hail Mary" per side: If the cookies were too dark, he was praying too slow. Too light, and he wasn't praying enough.
He continued honing his culinary skills as a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where, armed with a dozen recipes printed on index cards by one of his aunts, he quickly cut a deal with his roommates: You clean, and I'll cook. He also cooked during seminary at Mount St. Mary's, and at various rectories after being ordained in 1978.
Though he taught a class in the early 1990s for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Camp Raising Spirits on how to spark the appetites of cancer patients, Father Esposito didn't go public, so to speak, with his excellent cooking skills until 2001: While pastor of Good Samaritan in Ambridge, he was raffled off for the first time at a charity event for Sisters Place.
After that, his reputation as a chef quickly grew. These days, his home-cooked dinners are on the auction block as many as six times a year, and he's always happy for the opportunity.
"We invite people to the altar for a banquet, so why not to our own table?" he asks.
"Food," he adds, "is love, because you put yourself into it."
Orecchiette San Matteo
This sauce undoubtedly gets better the longer you simmer it. I added a couple pinches of hot red pepper.
- 1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped fine
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 small zucchini, sliced thin
- 1 1/2 pounds meat loaf mix (ground veal, beef and pork)
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 28-ounce cans chopped San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds orrecchiette pasta
- Salt to taste
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Fresh spinach, optional
Put olive oil in a large cooking pan or pot over medium-high heat, and when hot, add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic and cook for a few minutes, until flavor is released. Add zucchini, and continue to cook another 2 minutes.
Add meat loaf mix, breaking up the meat. Cook until it is lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add white wine, and cook until it evaporates, about 2 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
While sauce is simmering, cook orecchiette according to package directions. Drain, reserving about 2 tablespoons of the pasta water. Set aside.
Add drained pasta and reserved pasta water to cooked sauce, and toss to coat. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano, mix well and salt to taste. Just before serving, add a handful or two of raw spinach, if desired.
Serves 6 to 8.
-- Father Brian Welding, Ascension Parish, Ingram
Mizeria (Polish Cucumber Salad)
This simple salad is fresh and tangy, and perfect served any time of the year.
- 3 cucumbers, very thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 medium red onion, very thinly sliced
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fresh dill
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
In a large bowl, mix cucumbers and salt. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Drain water from bowl and add red onion slices.
In a small bowl, mix sour cream, cider vinegar, dill and black pepper. Add sour cream mixture to cucumber and red onion slices and mix gently. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serves 6 to 8.
-- Father Nicholas Vaskov, St. Vitus and St. Vincent de Paul parishes, New Castle
Make sure the pancetta or bacon is good and crispy.
- 3 cups Swiss chard or spinach, cleaned
- 1 large baking potato, peeled and cubed
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 cup shaved pecorino Romano
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/2 cup pancetta or bacon, cooked and crumbled
Bring lightly salted water to a boil in a steamer with a tight fitting lid. Once water is boiling, place chopped chard into steamer basket. Steam with lid on for 3 to 5 minutes. After steaming greens, squeeze excess water from them. Set aside. Parboil or microwave potato slightly.
Coat glass baking dish with 1 tablespoon oil. Mix together greens, garlic, salt and pepper, potato and pancetta with remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Place mixture in dish, cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil, add cheese and continue baking an additional 15 minutes.
-- Father Samuel Esposito, St. John the Baptist Parish, Baden
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published October 4, 2012 4:00 AM